Song Sources: “Robin (The Mirror)”

This is part of a series I’m doing on the tracks on the new EP, Baltimericana. To read the other parts of this series, simply click on the tag “Song Sources” above.

This song came out of thinking about the cancellation of the U.S. shuttle program. If that sounds weird, then you don’t know me very well. Really it’s more complicated than just having given up on flying around in space. There are all sorts of implications, but the biggest one is probably “well, this planet is all we get after all, ever.” I have a general interest in space and astronomy, so I consciously know that the chance of terraforming Mars or reaching another star is remote in the extreme, but that doesn’t seem to help. People fight hopeless battles all the time, even knowing that they’re futile, but there’s a big difference between than and actual despair. So I pondered that a bit.

My wife was on vacation for the weekend at a conference, so I had the house to myself and got the song done in a couple days.

Lyrics

Cameron Crow, Russel Crow, Sheryl Crow, Crow Diddly, Gregory Peck, Hume Crow-ney, Mr. Crowley … so many bird names to choose from!

The lyrics started with an image of a couple standing in front of a store window , and then the woman turns into a bird and flies away. I went with the name “Robin” because it was ambiguous as far as gender went and because there just aren’t that many bird names that are also person names: Jay, Robin, and Crow are about all I can think of off hand, and a couple last names (like Crane and Crowe and, er, Byrd). Okay, and there’s that British singer Birdie. But Robin seemed like the best of the bunch.

I also remember this song being written basically in the same order it ended up in, meaning I had two verses, then wrote a chorus, then a third verse, and then the little part at the end. It just flowed well from the first line: “Robin, will you grow your wings at dawn?” This is fairly unusual for my writing. I tend to be very disorganized, writing down everything that comes to mind and then going back and restructuring it, deleting what I don’t want, or filling in gaps, and generally strengthening the imagery I think works best in any given song.

Robin will you grow your wings at dawn?
Can ascension teach us both what’s going on?
Summer’s long, but the season is gone.

As far as the story goes, I like stark contrast between characters when you’ve only got a limited space to talk about them. In this case, I started with the idea of someone who can turn into a bird and fly away, so I sort of asked a second character who can’t do that how they feel about it. What if he knew it was happening? Basically, what if they thought they were a couple of caterpillars, but it turns out he’s just a worm?

And Robin doesn’t time hate the obsessed?
One hand on your breast and back to chest
I could feel your heart slow to a rest.

One half is okay with what’s going on, while it’s keeping up the other one at night. Two in the morning is a long hour when you have a lot on your mind.

Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t
Be so cavalier
And I promise not to be the mirror
And you know, know, know, know
Love’s not a relic and I won’t be a souvenir

There are a lot of double meanings here, so it’s probably worth breaking down the wordplay.

Wikipedia says this is an archetypal cavalier. It’s a prince. Maybe he didn’t like the peasants?

“Cavalier” is used to mean haughty or dismissive, a very strange connotation given that it derived from a word for a knight, and was used to indicate a gallant. It’s particularly interesting that the negative connotation predates the English civil war, so this interesting turn doesn’t even have a political motivation. It just seems that at some point people decided that people who ride horses are jerks. I know that the notion of chivalry was almost entirely made up. Chivalry was obsolete in Cervantes’s time, and by the time the Victorians started rewriting history to sound a lot more rosy (and rewriting sex to sound a lot more gray).

MIrror can also be a complicated word. In everyday speech, to mirror something means to mimic it, or faithfully duplicate it. But mirrors are also used in deception (think illusions) and mimicry is also used for mockery. Overall, this makes the line a little more complex than simply saying, “Be nice to me and I’ll be nice to you.”

I went back and grabbed the religious symbolism of the word “ascension” from the first paragraph. The image of someone flying away reminded me of a couple moments in literature where a character ascends to heaven: Rebecca in One Hundred Years of Solitude and Cosimo in The Baron in the Trees. “Relic” has a lot of meanings. It’s a physical reminder of something, a religious token, something obsolete, something old, and connotes something that might be slightly important but only as a reminder of something that was at one point more important. A souvenir is one step removed from even that: it doesn’t even have intrinsic value, because its only value is in reminding you of somewhere you’ve been.

Robin aren’t we both unsatisfied?
The more we ate the less we filled inside
And what was left
left what was left to die

This is more straightforward: Just a way of acknowledging that the end is near.

Silhouette on the blue
In gray light
Distorted Shape
A stone and not a jewel
Gave up all
Hope of escape

I think at this point, the above explanations of the differences between these characters make these lines obvious. But it would also make sense to circle back around to the genesis of the song: giving up.

Music

The music is based partly on some Celtic patterns, which is also the tonality I used for the vocals, but the jump up to the 6th like in the first line “Robin will you grow” is more common in American southern styles like soul or gospel. The first couple measures or so bears more than a passing resemblance to Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love.” I think I probably would have heard Bon Iver for the first time around the time this was written, but I can’t be certain it was a direct influence because it’s not like the melodic structure of that line is uncommon. In any case, I play “Skinny Love” now, and I wouldn’t play them back to back, if you catch my meaning.

The chord structure is almost entirely major chords, but with a heavy emphasis on the 6th, especially in the chorus. One of the main guitar lines also doubles the vocal melody in most places (even though it’s also playing the arpeggiated pattern that comes in in the second verse).

The bridge/ending is pretty close to the riff from “Most Distant Star,” which I wrote about the same time as this.

Recording and Gear

The instrumentation in this recording is done entirely with guitars: The acoustic is my Tennessee Crafters D18 copy. Most of the electric parts were done with the Don Quixotecaster, except a very bassy track done with my friend Keith’s Gibson ES-135 run through a klone I built. There are multiple takes of most of these guitars so what sounds like chorus and delay is actually just more instruments. The higher gain sounds in the instrumental section were the Winnie the Pooh and Some Bees fuzz again with the Hartman compressor in front of it (“doing it wrong”), set to something not quite like fuzz. There were some other effects that I used that didn’t make the cut: I needed a phaser type sound at one point but all I had was an envelope filter. It didn’t pan out.

The echo parts in the bridge and ending were done with the Strymon El Capistan. We recorded the oscillating parts separately and I did some manipulation of those in post-production.

The percussion is guitar sounds, too. There was one moment in a chorus where I thumped the guitar, so Joe grabbed that and copied it a few times for emphasis elsewhere. When I did the remixing, I used it as part of a percussion loop in the instrumental part.

The vocals are (again) stacked, and unlike “Harbor” where there was a lot of looping or just manipulating copies of a track with different EQ and effects, here there were enough good almost-identical takes. At one point in the song there are as many as six vocals being used as a sort of manual reverb or delay. I generally find that stacking vocals helps deal with the throatiness (and pitchiness) of my voice, and it really helped in this song to help it melt into the instrumentation a little better and punch up some of the rhythm.

Katie added some particularly beautiful backing vocals to this. Maybe I should have asked her to sing the whole thing!

This is by far my favorite song on the EP, and lyrically it’s a favorite of mine overall. I originally intended it as a Midway Fair song, but things didn’t quite work out as far as adding it to our repertoire at the time I wrote it, and I thought that the EP just needed what I thought was a really good song. I think most people who have heard the EP at the time I’m writing this commented more on other songs, but maybe they’ll come around.

Here’s how to play it if anyone’s interested:

Capo 3 (D chord formations; chords are written at absolute pitch.)

Intro: C6 F      | C6 F

Verse
F
Robin will you grow your wings at dawn?
Can ascension teach us both what’s going on?
Bb                    C
Summer’s long but the season is gone.

And Robin doesn’t time hate the obsessed?
One hand on your breast and back to chest,
I could feel your heart slow to a rest.

Chorus
F           Dm     F          C        C6                  F
Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t be so cavalier
F
and I promise not to be the mirror.
F          Dm      F          C
And you know, know, know, know,
C6                                                              F
Love’s not a relic and I won’t be a souvenir.

Robin aren’t we both unsatisfied?
The more we ate the less we filled inside
What we buried left what was left to die

Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t be so cavalier
and I promise not to be the mirror.
And you know, know, know, know,
Love’s not a relic and I won’t be a souvenir.

Bridge riff 1:
F(6)                                                      C(6)         F             C(6)         F
e—8/10-10–10-8——————————————————————————–
B—————————-10—–8—–6———8h10p8—-6——-8h10p8—-6——-
G—5/7—7—7-5—————————–9————-5——–9————-5———-
D—————————-7——5—–3——–10———–3———10———-3———
A——————————————————————————————————
E——————————————————————————————————

Bridge riff 2 (counterpoint; comes in at the third bar):
F(6)                            C(6)    F                     C(6)      F
e——————————5–3———————3–5———————
B————————6————6———–6—————-6————-
G—————5–7———————5–7————————–5–7—-
D—3–5–7———————————————————————-
A———————————————————————————-
E———————————————————————————-

F
Silhouette on the blue
C6     F
In gray light
C6           F
Distorted shape

A stone and not a jewel
Gave up all
Hope of escape

As one last little bonus, I found this demo I recorded from the weekend I wrote the song.

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One response

  1. […] I wrote it over the course of a Saturday while sitting in our library, and like the song “Robin” from the Baltimericana EP (which I wrote after this song if you want an idea of how long […]

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